Early afternoon in a cobblestoned backstreet of Amsterdam, and Ronnie Wood's matchstick legs are stalking hesitantly around an art gallery called White Space. They stop intermittently before particular paintings, feet hovering cautiously in mid-air. Above them, his face folds into an origami-like frown.
"No, no, no," he is saying to the gallery's owner. "This one shouldn't be here. It's got to go over..." - he casts his gaze around searchingly - "over there. There. And this one? This one needs to be higher. I want people to see it, not bump into it."
He tuts with irritation, and watches as his instructions are followed, very necessarily, to the letter. Somebody fetches him an espresso, his third of the day, and slowly his latest art exhibition is beginning to take acceptable shape.
"Better," he says. "Much better."
Ten minutes later, Wood has invited me to what passes for the gallery's backstage area. We sit, side by side, on an enormous lounger, and he lights up a cigarette that will not, by anybody's counting, be his last of the day. For a man rapidly approaching his 60th year, he is looking surprisingly good. There isn't an ounce of fat on his whippet-thin body. Raised veins line ropey arms, he still boasts a full head of thick black hair, and his imposing Roman conk is quite fabulous. Today, the Rolling Stones's long-serving second guitarist has his artist's hat on. Wherever the band's current world tour, A Bigger Bang, visits, so too does the Ronnie Wood Art Show, pitching up at a local gallery to considerable fanfare.
"Good here, innit?" he says, eyes wide as saucers. It's certainly better than it was in Germany a week previously when, after it became clear that the man himself wouldn't be able to grace the gallery due to band commitments, the owner promptly cancelled the show. But here in Amsterdam, Wood's art is the cause of much excitement. The local press has been praising him in glowing terms. "I like it when journalists are nice to me," he beams, "and it's happening more and more. When I first started all this, it was mostly music fans that came along, Stones fans. But now... now, I'm being taken seriously. I've got highfalutin' art collectors and everything! I've even got poncey, snooty British art critics on my side. It's true! They've accepted me, and it's blown my mind, I'll be honest with you, it has. But then, let's face it: I paint well. I know it, you know it. There's no arguing really, is there?"
He is unquestionably a versatile artist, and his latest exhibition is as thematically eclectic as it is possible to get. In a space no larger than your average Starbucks, he is showing his landscapes, his nudes and his - wait for it - sabre-toothed tigers. Over there are the racehorses, the crowded Afghan commuter buses, and Jim Morrison next to Marvin Gaye alongside Bob Marley. And then, in pride of place, are the ones that Wood is most famous for, the studies (in pencil, in paint, and what looks like crayon) of the Rolling Stones. These are by far the most jarring of his works. While the solo portraits of drummer Charlie Watts are exquisite - Watts resembling a quiet emperor in dignified repose - the caricatures of Mick Jagger gurning horribly at the microphone are less impressive. These, you feel, are the kind of cheesy caricatures that saw off all those Athena poster shops in the 1990s. But his Jack Nicholson is fabulous, and a new print, of a quizzical rhinoceros, is wonderfully vibrant.
We wander through the exhibition hours before the doors are opened, and already many bear the red dot that denotes a sale. An original Ronnie Wood isn't cheap. Even the smallest portraits here (of Kate Moss, of his wife Jo) will set you back a couple of thousand Euros. The bigger landscapes stretch all the way to six figures.
"It's basically about how much a particular work means to me," Wood says, explaining the pricing. "Or how much time and effort went into it."
He tells me that some are so personal to him that he will never part with them, "although we all have our price, don't we?" He gives, as an example, one of his most treasured paintings, Beggars' Banquet. "I was never going to sell that one. I loved it too much." But then a collector offered him a million dollars for it, and his jaw went slack. "I couldn't resist it, could I? A million? That's a lot of fucking money!"
Wood has painted all his life. In 1963, aged 16, he followed his two older brothers, Art and Ted, into Ealing Art College, but allowed his passion to wane when, five years later, he joined his first band, The Birds. The Creation followed, then The Jeff Beck Group, The Faces and, in 1975, the Stones. He returned to his first love two decades later, and for one very pertinent reason: money.
"Oh, I'm terrible with money, absolutely awful. I'm always losing it. My last manager I had for 18 years, but even he went and lost every fucking penny I had. How? By investing it badly. Selling my art was a way to get some of it back."
While he likes to protest that the Stones are forever staring down the barrel of a gigantic tax bill, a recent report actually suggests quite the opposite. After opening two foundations in the Netherlands to manage the rights to their music, they were reported to have paid just 1.6 per cent tax on royalties of £240m over 20 years. Wood himself is worth somewhere in the region of £70m. But maybe he himself doesn't actually realise this? At one point, he tells me he is only comfortably in the black these days because his oldest son, Jamie, balances his books.
"Jamie's definitely the clever one," he says, winking.
While he no longer paints for his supper, then, it clearly remains an abiding passion, and with good reason. In the Stones, he is one of four (and, it must be pointed out, notably inferior to the Mick & Keith leadership). As an artist, however, he is the don, and he clearly thrills to the fact that people are now taking this side-project seriously. After several years of ridicule - his work has been called "feeble and figurative" and when, under the encouragement of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Royal Academy were required to exhibit one of his paintings, The Ivy, they shoved it in the café - he is now being afforded respect. Brian Sewell, long regarded as one of the country's loftiest art critics, recently pronounced him "an accomplished and respectable painter".
"It's taken folk a while to come around, hasn't it?" he grins. "Even the boys in the band, at first, weren't too sure about the whole art thing. They just wanted me to concentrate on the music. But they respect it now. Mick has even expressed an interest in coming to the gallery tonight. He doesn't normally do that, but because he's seen me behaving myself lately, he is being much more supportive, which is nice."
Jagger once expressed an interest in purchasing two of his landscapes, which, Wood suggests, "was generous of him, given the prices we were asking". And did the singer actually buy them? His laugh is that of an undead Sid James. "No, he never did come good, as it goes! Never mind, it's the thought that counts, yeah?" And with that, he goes back out to reposition a few more of his paintings.
Later that same evening, White Space opens its doors and Holland's glitterati flood in. f They are, en masse, a fabulously extravagant coterie, the men dressed like Quentin Crisp acolytes (albeit Quentin Crisp acolytes in open-toed sandals), the women smoking cigars and teetering on platform soles. And everybody is drinking champagne. Everybody, that is, except for the artist himself, who is currently on the wagon but who nevertheless appears the very picture of boyish excitement. He welcomes my arrival like an old friend and, moments later, is shaking my shoulder while whispering frantically in my ear.
"Look! Come and meet my new best mate Tommy Hilfiger! The guy loves my work, apparently! Tommy fucking Hilfiger!"
Hilfiger, indeed an ardent collector of Wood's work, has come with a couple of close friends: Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who twinkle Hollywoodly under pinprick spotlights, their presence increasing the artist's childlike, and rather touching, sense of wonder.
Time passes, the champagne flows, Mick Jagger fails to show. Wood sticks firmly to mineral water and cigarettes, his wife Jo watching on with affection. She looks relieved, as well she might.
Earlier this year, just before the Rolling Stones kicked off their world tour, Ronnie Wood fell off the wagon and into rehab. This wasn't the first time.
"No, it was my fifth," he says the day after the gallery opening over coffee. "Or maybe my sixth? What can I say, I'm an alcoholic. It's what I do. Obviously, normal people don't go out to work drunk, but for an alcoholic, it's entirely normal to go to work out of your fucking brain, and that's exactly what I did - for years." He smiles sadly, and licks dry, possibly parched, lips. "But not anymore, hopefully. The last show we played, in Paris, I was straight as a die. It did feel weird not to be hiding behind alcohol or dope, but being focused was ... it was good. It felt pure. That's my new thing now: purity. I like to pretend I'm [tennis champion] Nadal or [Brazilian football star] Ronaldinho, living in the moment and entirely focused. Let's hope I stay that way."
His wife's presence as his on-the-road PA helps; likewise that of his four children (who fly out for occasional dates). Their support has been crucial.
"Mick and Charlie have also been terrific," he says. "Really encouraging."
"Well ... Keith still has a few, but even he has been watching himself recently. Mostly, we're all very well behaved these days. Charlie [who recently won his battle against throat cancer] doesn't touch anything now, and Mick will only have a glass of wine on a night off. But then it's easier for them; alcohol is in my genes."
Born to Romany gypsies, Ronnie Wood grew up on tugboats and council estates, and drink, he explains, was something everybody did. By the time he got into music, he was doing drugs, too: "Dope, cocaine, heroin - though I never did like injecting, fortunately, and it was that that probably saved me from OD'ing. I've been lucky: I've lost so many friends to that."
He likes to believe that this time he will remain clean for the duration.
"I just think my body can't handle it anymore. I did try a little drink a while back, and I was actually physically ill. I went into an immediate depression, and felt awful, just dreadful. So that's it. I'm over it now. I am."
This, then, is the first Rolling Stones tour he will conduct entirely sober. Which just leaves Keith to keep the debauchery alive. And he does this wonderfully, of course: it was Keith's antics that almost caused the implosion of A Bigger Bang before it had even properly got started. Back in April this year, the band were on holiday together in Fiji. Richards, who had reportedly had a few, was climbing a tree for no other reason than to show off. He fell from a branch, and on to his head.
"I was sitting right behind him when it happened," Wood recalls, "and I heard this massive thud. I spun around, and there he was, on the ground. He'd cut his gums up on impact, he was very bloody, and clutching his head."
Richards was duly flown to New Zealand, where he underwent an operation on his brain.
"I think it was a kind of wake-up call for him," he says. "His attitude is better now, and you can see it in everything he does. It's like he knows he is lucky to be alive, and is well happy about it. Wait till you see us tomorrow night [the band are in Amsterdam to play at Ajax FC's football ground]. You'll have to come backstage afterwards and watch him take the piss out of me. He always does. It's funny as fuck."
The following evening, at the Amsterdam Arena, the Rolling Stones reanimate themselves into vivid life before a crowd of 50,000 people, most of whom are middle-aged and male and not as slim as they once were. It's a spirited karaoke affair, Mick Jagger increasingly resembling a caricature of himself as he peacock-walks in concentric circles around the stage, each leg entirely independent of the other. Charlie Watts remains the very model of drummerly etiquette (he holds the drumsticks the way the Queen would a dessert spoon), and Ronnie Wood, bless him, has a huge simple grin on his face, eyes throbbingly alive. Keith Richards' very presence, meanwhile, is towering, his face like Mount Rushmore after a landslide, iconic cigarette protruding from the corner of iconic mouth, gnarled fingers working guitar strings with a surprising lightness of touch.
The show is entirely predictable, featuring hits written a whole generation ago, all the usual pyrotechnics and those big inflatable lips. Though we've seen it all a hundred, a thousand, times before, it remains somehow reassuring that the band that refuses to die ploughs ever on all the way to the encore - and beyond.
I never make it backstage to witness Keith Richards taking the piss out of his bandmate afterwards. Fifty thousand roaring fans ultimately impede my progress, but then the backstage area would no doubt have resembled a military zone. One doesn't hang out with the Rolling Stones the way one can, so readily, with its second guitarist at one of his own shindigs. But then that's Ronnie Wood for you: no airs, no graces, full of zest and youth and the open, eager friendliness of a Labrador puppy.
A day earlier, he was telling me that he was keenly anticipating the end of the tour, which grinds towards its ultimate full stop some time in 2007. Not because he will be tired of music - "I always want to rock," he grinned - but because he wants to set himself and the missus up in a house by the sea: "France maybe, or the Algarve - possibly both." He wants some unbroken painting time to stretch out tantalisingly before him. Painting is when Ronnie Wood is his own boss and, just perhaps, when he is at his most content.
"This is what I'm looking forward to: brush in hand, whatever I'm painting in my sights, maybe a cigarette on the go, and sunshine, lots of sunshine." His 60-year-old eyes gloss over until they become positively teenage. "That'd make me nice and happy," he sighs, "and you can't ask for more than that, eh?" E
Ronnie Wood's Art Show is at Scream, 34 Bruton St, London W1, from Tuesday to 25 August (020-7493 7388 or see www.ronniewood.com). The Rolling Stones play across the UK, 20-29 August. For more details: www.rollingstones.comReuse content